Twenty years ago, Saddam Hussein’s Scud rockets began to rain down on Tel Aviv. The specter of a chemical attack was Israel’s nightmare, because anthrax was a reality in Saddam’s Iraq. Thirty-nine missiles fell on Israel. On those cold nights, the Israelis wore gas masks, because Saddam had revived the idea in the Israeli unconscious that the Jews could be gassed again. The Israelis checked the shelters, sealing doors and windows, they stood in line for gas masks in the hallways of neighborhood elementary schools, and watched chemical-warfare defense videos. Food cans quickly disappeared from the supermarkets. “Drink a lot of water” was the army’s advice against the effects of a possible biochemical attack. Saddam’s Scuds damaged 4,393 buildings, 3,991 apartments, and 331 public institutions. This accounting does not include the incalculable costs of equipping every Israeli with a gas mask, of the need for every Israeli family to prepare sealed rooms, of the national disruption caused by multiple alerts, and of lost business and tourism.
Twenty years ago, Saddam Hussein threatened to “burn half of Israel.” Today Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has promised to wipe out the “dead rats,” as he called the Israelis. Tehran is the biggest strategic threat to Israel’s existence, especially by the terror satellites of Hezbollah and Hamas. According to the new Israeli intelligence reports, Iran would now be able to launch 400 “lethal” missiles on Tel Aviv. Hezbollah could launch up to 600 rockets per day. From Teheran to Tel Aviv, an Iranian Shihab-3 rocket would take 12 minutes to hit the Jewish state. The Dan area of Tel Aviv, where live a quarter of the entire Israeli population, is the target of the next war, about which nobody knows if and when it will burst, but everyone knows that it will have emblazoned within it the eyes of the ayatollahs.
Israel is investing in its own survival. Both Tel Aviv and the port city of Haifa were severely hit by the rockets of 1991. But, for the first time since the birth of Israel, tomorrow these cities could be reached by devastating bombs. The power of death in the region has risen dramatically. It has been estimated that four years ago, Syria had 300 missiles that could reach Tel Aviv, a dozen for Hezbollah, 50 for Iran, and nothing for Hamas. Two years later, Syria had 1,300, Hezbollah 800, Hamas a dozen, and Iran 300. Today it’s 2,300 for Syria, 1,200 for Hezbollah, 400 for Teheran, and a good arsenal of Fajr-5 for Hamas. Jerusalem could be hit with a precision that would leave intact the Al-Aqsa Mosque. So Tel Aviv today is not extending only to the sky with its beautiful skyscrapers but also sinks into the ground because it’s a new target for Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
The Habima Theater, for example, will have four underground floors, with entrances on each side. Jerusalem should see the opening of the largest nuclear bunker across the country: 80 feet underground to accommodate 5,000 people. Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel, is building “the largest underground hospital in the world.” And the state is continuing the distribution of gas masks. These first appeared in 1991, when Benjamin Netanyahu, then the Israeli deputy foreign minister, appeared on CNN with a mask. Today thousands of private Israeli homes have been equipped with nuclear-proof shelters ranging from air filters to water-decontamination systems.
Drills have become a routine all over the country. Hospitals and emergency facilities have to be ready in case of necessity, and the municipalities have evacuation protocols. A postcard of the Home Front Command, delivered to Israeli citizens, divide the country into six regions, from the Negev to the Golan. Each region has different times of reaction in case of attack. If you live along the Gaza Strip, you have 20 seconds to shelter. In Jerusalem, it’s three minutes. But if you live close to Lebanon or Syria, the color red means that, unless you are already in a bunker, you just have to wait for the rocket. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is building a labyrinth of underground tunnels and rooms where the Jewish leadership would guide the country in case of attacks.
Twenty years after the first Gulf War, Israel remains the only “bunkered” democracy in the world and is now even more relentlessly demonized and ghettoized. But if in 1991 Israel responded with understatement and quiet civil courage, it will probably react differently to Iran’s nuclearization. Because, as Joe McCain wrote few years ago, “the Jews will not go quietly again.”